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Fire Memories 

The caption for the Christmas card photo: PHOTO 4:47am, September 3, 1993, Engine 48, Orange County Heavy Rescue. WARDROBE Turnouts, goggles and gloves courtesy Engine 48 crew…wish we could of washed ·em before we handed them back. LOCATION Top of the driveway. Photo courtesy of Scott and Barbara King

King Family Christmas 1993

YES! We made it, our house made it, our street made it, most of Fernwood made it.

We were blessed from the beginning. We were both in the canyon and happened to be together when we saw the smoke only 15 minutes after the fire started. People who were separated from each other or from their home had to endure a more frustrating nightmare than what we saw with our eyes. We both felt lucky to be able to stay with the fire the entire time. We made all the preparations we could to evacuate, packing our condensed life into vehicles, but we never came close to real terror, as the TV had us believing at times. I mean it. We would be inside watching the television with this powerful sense of dread building up inside of us, and we’d say forget it, let’s go back outside, watch the flames and calm down. The fire nearby was not the firestorm, it was 3-5 miles further away from us…on our little ridge it took 12 hours to burn down to within 600 feet of us.

Imagine our joy late at night when 5 fire engines pulled onto our dead-end street. Do you know how big they looked at night, when we thought the whole place was deserted? And do you know how large the fire looked to them, driving up the dark, narrow streets of Fernwood? When we greeted them, they sized us up to see what sort of crazies had stuck around, and then they parked Engine 48 in our driveway for 4 days. There’s no doubt in our mind that we made the right decision to stick it out. Even with the firemen there, we didn’t sleep for 38 hours straight. We had firefighter intensive training, learning the hoses as if our lives depended on it. We watched the winds shift as they always do, learned all we could about the S30,000/hr airshow overhead, and felt the interlocking safety net of friendship weave around us.

We raided the neighbor’s fridge to cook omelets for 12 firefighters, prayed for daylight so the water drops could begin, opened the shop for the smokejumpers to fix their chainsaw, and kept an update on the answering machine. made lots of coffee, estimated flame heights, cleared brush. stood watch on the roof for embers, fell asleep on the roof with one arm wrapped around the toilet vent, felt our lips peel off from the smoke and dryness, and never once left our street for 5 days. But why did we stay…are we stubborn, was it all the time we’ve put into our house, did we fail to see the danger? None of the above explanations ring true for us. We both felt the same spirit from the fire as we do swimming in the tides of the ocean-the raw-alive energy was captivating. To us, this was life. and living in the moment comes so rarely these days. Each moment mattered, and wasted motions were few. Life sorted itself out so clearly, and we were there. BK

Woolsey: A Rude Awakening

Driving to Canoga Park from calm, sunny Topanga Canyon on the day we evacuated was bizarrely disorienting. The Woolsey fire started just eight miles west of our evacuation destination while the home we left behind was tranquil and so far untouched. This was the view from my daughter’s neighborhood. Photo by Bonnie Morgan

Nearly 30 years ago, my husband, Janek, and I moved our large family to Topanga Canyon. Like many newcomers to canyon life, we were clueless about what living in the wildland urban interface really meant, believing that we were simply the smart ones opting to live out of the city. 

Now we know living in Topanga is a serious responsibility.

By 1994, just before we arrived, the Topanga community had weathered nearly all types of disasters short of locusts. Community organizations had been chastened by these disasters—fire, flood, and earthquake—and refocused and heightened their programs and community outreach. The result was the creation of one of the models for disaster preparedness in the country, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), a coalition of local volunteer teams ready to respond to disasters in coordination with county agencies of the fire department, Sheriffs, CHP, and state officials. The goal was to educate, prepare and communicate.

We listened. We had our “Go Bag” packed, our family photos and papers boxed and at the ready. When the evacuation order came on November 9, we packed our bags, hesitating about taking more than we needed; of course, we would be right back. 

With the car brimming with family records, blankets, pillows, and a change of clothes, our family and pets all evacuated even as we wondered if the threat to Topanga was serious. We didn’t even smell smoke. Was leaving really necessary?

The drive south on the Boulevard to our daughter’s home in Canoga Park brought a sense of unreality. What we could not see from our home in Fernwood was vividly visible; it looked like the entire valley was on fire.

Returning home a week later was a relief; our home was fine, Topanga had been completely spared. The devastation and evidence of the power and speed of the Woolsey fire just over the mountain ridge, however, was a sobering lesson to not take things for granted when you are blessed to be living in the wildland urban interface. Bonnie Morgan

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